If you’ve involved yourself in a conversation about video games within the last few years, chances are you have come across the sentiment that the game industry has begun running out of ideas. People point to the highly iterative nature of what have become the annual tentpole franchises, using the similarity of those blockbuster games and their imitators as evidence of industry-wide stagnation. However, that concept is misguided. With the transparency of modern game development, the democratization of development tools, and the digital distribution revolution, the game industry has never been a more diverse place.
While many commenters rightly identify that big franchises only slightly alter their formulas for every major new release, they miss why those titles are so iterative in the first place. It is no big secret that business drives the majority of game development. Creating a triple-A blockbuster like Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed takes an astronomical amount of money. You won’t see major studios throwing away the proven blueprints for the next title for the franchise in favor of something experimental. The potential failure could risk entire companies, both publishers and developers.
Moving past the reasons for high-cost, triple-A titles adhering to formula, the video game industry exists outside the realm of multi-million dollar development. Since the digital revolution made independent video game publishing online a viable option, indie developers have thrived. Combined with the release of the Source Engine, Unreal Engine 4, Unity 5, and a number of other freely available development tools, there has never been a better time for people to create their own games. In fact, I’d argue that at no other time in the short history of video games has the industry been so robust and creative. There is room in the wide spectrum of gaming for Transistor and The Stanley Parable alongside juggernauts like Halo and Skyrim.
That isn’t even counting the worlds of hobby game design and experimental game development. Hundreds of fully-fleshed out games like Star Stealing Prince or Exit Fate have been created by lone developers in their spare time and released freely onto the internet. These people don’t make money off their projects or distribute their games through stores. Experimental games have also been gaining more traction in recent years as people test the limits of what games can accomplish. The upcoming M.C. Escher-inspired title Manifold Garden challenges players to interact with the concept of infinity and four-dimensional space. Willy Chyr, the game’s sole creator, originally intended for the game to function as a piece of digital installation art and was surprised when it found a home on the PlayStation 4. That Chyr’s highly experimental work became attached to a mainstream publisher is something that would have been unthinkable several years ago, but we now exist in a time when almost everything can find the right audience.
There are so many games being made these days that we’ve run into entirely the opposite problem of stagnation: There are simply too many games being made. Steam, the world’s largest digital distribution platform, has two systems that expose gamers to potentially exciting projects while also gauging their interest. Those programs, Greenlight and Early Access, are flooded with more games than could be played in a lifetime. Many of those titles are blatant cash grabs or barely functional prototypes. This problem, however, is merely a symptom of the industry’s massive expansion.
All of this comes down to the simple fact that the video game industry, far from becoming stuck in a quagmire of incremental iteration, has flourished incredibly. More great video games are being made now than in the history of the medium, and that’s something we should celebrate.
Originally published in La Cruda